Ben Chan says Bench did not violate any law with regards to the Philippine Volcanoes billboards.
“What is perceived to be a violation is coming from another group or political sector,” says the founder of the clothing brand, speaking for the first time following the recent removal of the Bench billboards in Edsa Guadalupe.
“Apparently they are empowered to suddenly remove the billboards if they feel they have ‘just cause’,” he adds.
Many retailers rely on the power of billboards to reinforce the message of their brands, such that main traffic arteries like Edsa are now cluttered with behemoth panels peddling every imaginable product, from telecom services to cosmetic procedures to undergarments.
The Bench billboards showed several members the Philippine Volcanoes, the national rugby team, in their skivvies. The team posed for the brand’s underwear line called Bench Body. The billboards were later taken down at the behest of two city mayors—Mandaluyong City’s Benhur Abalos and Valenzuela City’s Sherwin Gatchalian—who said the images were “offensive” and “inappropriate.” The billboards were in Abalos’ jurisdiction.
Not in violation
“Our billboards were not in any violation of any law per se, but our judicial system allows for disagreements to be addressed in various ways,” says Chan, explaining why his company, Suyen Corp., yielded to the mayors’ “request.” Abalos has said in interviews that his was just a “request” for a review, and remove if found in violation; he said it was Gatchalian who brought the billboards to his attention. Abalos called the billboards “inappropriate” but maintained he wasn’t being a moralist.
The move was met with outrage in social networks.
“As far as we were concerned, the ads were regulated and screened according to the prescribed guidelines of what is permissible to be shown to the public,” says Chan. “To begin with, if there were any violations, the billboards would not have been allowed to be produced and installed.”
Chan also pooh-poohs criticisms that Bench has gotten racier with its Bench Body ads. “For years, the Bench Body billboards have been conceived and shot in a tasteful manner. It’s not meant to be vulgar. Its visual execution, tone and mood are appealing and sexy. We are not known for exploiting our talents or for producing literally obscene ads just to get attention or to sell our products. Bench prides itself in having creative ads. Proof of this are the numerous advertising awards we have received from local and international award-giving bodies.
“We create our ads within the confines of what is permissible by the ad standard council. The basic guideline we set for the company is to be true to our message and our products.”
Speaking in general about billboards policies, George Siy, president of Marie France, Facial Care Centre and Svenson, says it’s “unfair” to impose a new policy, if there is one, without giving all concerned parties time to adjust to said policy.
“I think the government should sit down with those concerned and say, for instance, that next year, this will be the new policy,” Siy says. “There should be a time frame. They should consider what has been invested, to give business owners a leeway.”
He adds, “Unless [the billboards] post [physical] risks and they’re dangerous, it’s inappropriate to just go ahead [and take them down].”
With regards to the removal of the Bench billboards, Siy feels it was “unnecessary.”
Ronald Pineda, CEO of Folded & Hung, however, believes it was imperative for Bench to comply with the order. “I think it was done for the good of the majority,” he says.
Then he adds, “But I think the officials should be objective and have a broader understanding when they review all these ads that are coming out. For as long as the message is aligned with the product being endorsed, I don’t see any problem there. You wouldn’t put a half-naked man in skimpy underwear for a pizza ad, right?”
Above the uproar created by the dismantling of the billboards, it needs to be said just how much a billboard’s presence on the highway can impact a brand.
“If well-positioned, you get exposure in the few seconds a motorist passes by,” says Siy, also a big believer of print advertising. “It’s a large visual impression that’s lasting. It’s an impression, a reminder of what your brand is about. You need only a short statement that encapsulates what you want to say.”
“The billboards are static and seen 24/7 for a fixed period,” says Chan, who believes also in print and TV advertising.
“It helps visually communicate with our consumers through its large and engaging format,” Chan adds. “It can be just as intrusive as TV if only because once you are outside your home, you are compelled to look at the billboards. One can also say that it’s part of youth and street culture. It’s almost like a giant commercial graffiti. It literally becomes part of one’s visual experience when you take to the street in your vehicle or in public transport.”
Says Pineda, “It’s often larger-than-life so the message is loud, clear and easily conveyed. Billboards cost hundreds of thousands. Other than the information it sends out, it also always creates an impression of credibility for the brand.”
It’s clear that the Bench case has had quite an effect on these business owners. Chan feels that what happened will set a precedent across all industries that advertise via billboards.
In fact, he says, the ad standard council has already released a circular stating “stricter measures on ads showing skin.”
“The guidelines for ads showing the body has just been revised,” Chan explains.
But Pineda isn’t cowed. “Brands should still maintain their aggressiveness in sending their message across by showing a lot creativity to make our travel on Edsa more entertaining,” he says.
“We know that the public can isolate the issue with just our underwear products,” says Chan. “We are confident that we can put this issue behind us and face the challenges that lie ahead. Bench apparel is for all ages. As far as our underwear product is concerned, we will continue to produce exciting and creative designs that consumers can be proud of.”
“The value of billboards, like any media, is in their market and influence,” notes Siy. “Some might go overboard. We need to adjust to each other.”